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Lyrical Storytelling: Recycling the Chorus

Telling a narrative through song is by no means a recent invention. In fact, one could argue the original purpose of both songs and poetry, in a pre-paper world, was to convey stories and information in a way that would be more readily remembered by the listener.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a lyrical gem tucked away in several songs I enjoy (where storytelling is the focus). I’m not educated enough in musical theory to know if there is a more appropriate term for what I’d like to draw attention to, so I’ll invent my own term. Recently, I’ve found myself appreciating the recycled chorus.

What is a recycled chorus? It is when the lyrics of a song’s chorus remain consistent throughout the song, and yet the meaning of this chorus is recontextualised by the verses that surround it. Simply put, the chorus barely changes, but its meaning does. A perfect example of this can be found in Jay & The Americans’ greatest hit: Come A Little Bit Closer. 

The song begins innocuously enough:

In a little cafe
Just the other side of the border
She was just sitting there givin’ me looks
That made my mouth water

So I started walking her way
She belonged to bad man Jose
And I knew, yes I knew I should leave
When I heard her say, yeah

“Come a little bit closer
You’re my kind of man
So big and so strong
Come a little bit closer
I’m all alone and the night is so long”

I think we can all appreciate the economy of words here. We’re introduced to the setting, a little cafe in Mexico, and we know that the protagonist of the song is American and doesn’t belong here, all in two lines. The desire of the protagonist is established in the next two lines: he sees a lady. The second verse establishes the conflict for the rest of the song: the protagonist knows that she’s currently in a relationship with “bad man Jose”.

The exciting part is the chorus. The first time we hear it, the lady in the song declares her love for the protagonist. There’s nothing subtle about her proposition here. She’s interested, and it gives him pause when he should by all counts leave right there and then, and find a new cafe to haunt.

I won’t recite the entirety of the song here, but in the following two verses the hero begins dancing with the lady, and the guitar player who suddenly appears in the song by implication of them dancing, announces that “Jose’s on his way.” The hero admits,

Then I knew, yes I knew I should run
But then I heard her say, yeah

“Come a little bit closer…”

The second time we hear the chorus, it becomes slightly more insidious. The guitar player somehow knows that Jose is coming. We can deduce that Jose is gearing up to arrive and challenge the protagonist. Why then, is the lady still insisting they dance? Perhaps she wants this young suitor to rescue her from “bad man Jose”?

The last set of verses describe Jose arriving at the cafe to confront the hero. The protagonist jumps out through a window to escape from Jose…

And as I rode away
I could hear her say to Jose, yeah

“Come a little bit closer
You’re my kind of man
So big and so strong
Come a little bit closer
I’m all along and the night is so long”

The final time that we hear the chorus its meaning has completely changed. No doubt this is a mantra the lady has said to many different people. The protagonist wasn’t any more special than Jose was, when Jose first heard her say the words.

Another example of this lyrical technique at work is in the song Brandy by the band Looking Glass. The content of this song is in many ways similar to the previous one: a girl named Brandy works in the bar of a harbor town and is approached by many men wishing to marry her. The recycled chorus appears throughout the song: first, the chorus is a question, then it’s an answer to its own question, and then it’s a chilling conclusion.

Brandy is serving whiskey to a sea of sailors:

They say “Brandy, fetch another round”
She serves them whiskey and wine

And then we get to the chorus:

The sailors say, “Brandy, you’re a fine girl…
What a good wife you would be
Yeah, your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea”

It’s certainly a poetic way of asking a barmaid out, and perhaps some of the patrons mean it. The chorus is phrased in such a way that it lingers as a question, however. “What a good wife you would be…” They’re essentially asking: “Brandy, why aren’t you married?” Brandy’s reasons for turning down all her suitors are explained in the next two stanzas.

Brandy wears a braided chain
Made of finest silver from the north of Spain
A locket that bears the name
Of a man that Brandy loved

He came on a summer’s day
Bringing gifts from far away
But he made it clear he couldn’t stay
No harbor was his home

It’s curious that the past simple is used here: “the man that Brandy loved.” Did he die? Did she never see him again after that initial meeting? In the chorus, the praise of the group of sailors is repeated by this single one, but the last line of the chorus is changed to explain why they didn’t end up together.

The sailor said, “Brandy, you’re a fine girl
What a good wife you would be
But my life, my love and my lady is the sea”

It’s a tragic love story, reminiscent of what many couples go through during wartime. However, the reason for the separation isn’t war, it’s that Brandy’s sailor loves the ocean too much. The previous chorus stated that “your eyes could steal a sailor from the sea”, but now the listener hears that, tragically, this isn’t true. Now, the concluding line of the chorus comes as a slap to the face: the man that brandy loved declared he was already married to the sea. Perhaps this is why Brandy no longer seeks a relationship any sailor. She’s been burned in the past, and she’s still in love.

The story concludes with Brandy walking through the silent harbor town each night, as she hears her lover’s final words. The chorus repeats itself twice at the conclusion, like an echo, to reflect this.

But my life, my love and my lady is the sea.

Let me know if you can think of any songs that do something similar.

 

References:

Lurie, E. (1973). Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) [Song]. Lyrics retrieved from https://genius.com/Looking-glass-brandy-youre-a-fine-girl-lyrics

Farrell, W., Hart B. & Boyce, T. (1962). Come a Little Bit Closer [Song]. Lyrics retrieved from https://genius.com/Jay-and-the-americans-come-a-little-bit-closer-lyrics

Jay & The Americans. “Come A Little Bit Closer.” Come A Little Bit Closer: The Best of Jay & The Americans, Capitol Records, 1964. Spotify, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3LVGBB94eY

Looking Glass. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Looking Glass, Sony Music Entertainment, 1972. Spotify, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVx8L7a3MuE

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4 Comments

  1. Great use of your time and talents. Thanks for an enjoyable read!

  2. ปั้มไลค์ ปั้มไลค์

    Like!! Great article post.Really thank you! Really Cool.

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